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Is there GNSS on Mars?

Before humans reach the red planet, positioning satellites could assist exploration, scientific discovery and inter-planetary navigation.

Is there GNSS on Mars?

Of course not, but perhaps there should be. At least, that’s what one academic has proposed in light of the impending pushes by governments and private organisations to land people on the red planet within the coming decades.

Even before that happens, a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) constellation could be launched before humans arrive to assist in Mars’ robotic exploration, scientific analysis and perhaps even inter-planetary navigation.

New research released from the Mars Systems Laboratory and the faculty of Aeronautics of Technical University of Kosice in Slovakia calls for such a service. Lead researcher Dr Jozef Kozar has named the concept “GNSS FATIMA,” and proposes that is should include 15 navigation satellites.

The satellites would be based on the fundamentals of Earth’s existing satellite navigation systems but customised for the orbital and atmospheric conditions of Mars. Dr Kozar proposed that the 15 satellites would be oriented in three orbital planes, each containing five satellites.

What’s the point, you may ask. Imagine attempting to navigate an alien landscape devoid of infrastructure, plants, life, and water bodies, let alone maps. You have an idea then of the benefit of satellite positioning in such circumstances. When it comes to autonomous systems such as rovers, the need for satellite positioning is just as strong.

In fact, the Mars Systems Laboratory believes a satellite navigation system for Mars could prove to be one of the most important systems in the future exploration of the planet. It would reduce errors and uncertainty related to positioning, navigation, geodetic and timing services, while minimising the risks of both robotic and manned missions.

“This system will dramatically reduce the costs of future exploration of Mars,” Dr Kozar said. “It will allow us to focus our engineering resources more into the field of design and production of research systems, to planning complex missions and to simplify some parts of the planetary exploration itself.”

Research of the global navigation satellite system for Mars is no easy task and certainly not a copy-and-paste job based on Earth’s GNSS systems. A final solution would consider many facets, including space systems engineering and planetary science covering the ionosphere and magnetosphere, not to mention the immense logistics of launching such infrastructure. Dr Kozar’s research also addresses the entire planetary influence of the close environment around Mars, including gravitational fields of near space bodies and Mars’ neighbouring asteroid belt.

Kozar envisions that eventually a ‘galactic’ system for positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) will be able to determine the precise location of mission modules sent from Earth to Mars ahead of the first manned mission and establish ‘universal time’ between the two planets.

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